A Vikings stadium bill is imminent at the Legislature. We’re hearing the stadium legislation could be introduced within the next 24 hours, and certainly by week’s end.
In the current Capitol political environment, amid cutbacks and no-new-tax mantras, and with lukewarm backing from legislative leaders, exactly how a nearly $1 billion sports facility bill passes in this train-wreck of a session is anyone’s guess.
“Thirty, 40 percent chance, at best,” one nervous advocate told me the other day.
But before we know all the devilish details and argue about them, it might be time to rethink or, at least, remember what a Vikings stadium deal is supposed to mean.
Before we tear any bill apart — and there will be plenty of time for that — we should take a more macro view of this issue. Let’s try not to forget what the team means to the community, how it helps to “brand” the state on autumn Sundays, how 70 percent of the state’s TV sets in every legislative district are watching Vikings games on those Sundays, how the team’s player and staff income taxes bring in more than $10 million a year to state coffers.
Then we need to root for a socially responsible deal that can be creative without burdening taxpayers now or in the future, and without giving the team owners a sweetheart deal.
That will be no small feat while Local Government Aid is whacked, public transit is attacked, higher education support is sacked, health and human services programs dismantled and business leaders stand on the sidelines.
We’ve written that a Vikings franchise relocation to Los Angeles isn’t around the corner, but it is, at some point, possible.
As 2011 becomes 2012, and after the NFL’s labor woes eventually fade away, we will be sliding into the zone of possible. This latest piece of legislation is a first step to confronting that path. Good luck, Ted Mondale. You knew not what you signed on for.
It looks like the initial bill is going to be a familiar document: An $800 million to $1 billion roofed stadium, with the team, the state and a so-called “local partner” splitting the financing in thirds.
(We’ve ranted about such “contributions” in the past, about the state always ducking and the burden always falling on a small set of local taxpayers, but not today.)
The bill will apparently will be “site neutral” and will set up some mechanism for site selection. We’re likely to see history repeating itself. There’s been talk of a provision to appoint a representative group that will vet and determine site selection for the Legislature and governor.
This process was used in the late 1970s when the Metrodome was sited in downtown Minneapolis; once that decision was made, every other community in the metro area turned its back on funding the new stadium. A Minneapolis-only downtown hotel/motel and liquor tax had to be used. So much for the team being a state or regional asset, as so many people like to say, but no one likes to pay for.
For my money — and yours — the current Metrodome site or one near it, on the so-called Star Tribune site, are the best places. Central Corridor LRT links, familiarity with the location, cheap land acquisition, minimal infrastructure improvements, etc.
But, if there’s a committee to examine all this, we should get a hard and honest assessment of a Farmers’ Market site closer to Target Field — opposed by Mayor R.T. Rybak and City Council President Barbara Johnson — and, even, the suburban Arden Hills possibility. That one in the St. Paul suburb seems to be the most costly, but could be the most profitable for the Vikings, what with tailgating and massive parking lots.
A real estate consultant’s report paid for by the city about the expected costs of the Farmers’ Market site notes that the analysis was “very preliminary.” Let’s give it a fuller look.
We won’t get to any site issue, of course, if this bill has no legislative support.
What about this alternative?
There’s another idea floating around — and not in the bill — that should be examined by lawmakers and any site selection committee: that’s the notion of keeping the Metrodome open and operating for non-Vikings events, and building an open-air stadium for the Vikings nearby or, even, elsewhere.
At first blush, it sounds silly. It would, of course, add to our glut of sports facilities here — Xcel Energy Center, Target Center, TCF Bank Stadium, Target Field, plus a potential new Vikings stadium and a new-roofed, 30-year-old Dome.
But it could actually save the public money. How?
First — at least temporarily — it provides a place for the Vikings to play while a new stadium is built (if it’s built). No need to shoehorn the team into the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium for two seasons.
Second, if you reduce the cost of a new stadium by $200 million by not putting a roof on it, you save about $15 million a year in debt service. Keeping the Metrodome open for such events as college baseball, high school football and soccer and other community-oriented sports events would likely cost less than $10 million a year.
The Vikings have never wanted a roof on the stadium. The real chances of this community getting regular men’s NCAA Final Fours or even regionals is unlikely, and often not worth the cost. And one Super Bowl in 30 years is not worth $200 million.
As this bill moves forward, a good analysis of this “keep the Metrodome open” option could inform the pricing of a new stadium. Might wind up being stupid, but it’s worth a look.
This two-stadium notion goes to another issue in any legislation and potential stadium lease: Who pays for the operations of this stadium, if and when it somehow finds political support and funding?
For those who criticized the Twins legislation of five years ago on general principles, the Twins lease is solid for at least one big reason: The team funds all the operations of Target Field. In the Twins’ first season at the downtown Minneapolis ballpark, their operational costs were significantly higher than they expected. The team paid, not the Hennepin County-backed Minnesota Ballpark Authority.
But in exchange for the risks of unexpected increased operational costs, the team controls all the revenues flowing into the stadium. Just about every dime.
If the Vikings want such an arrangement — all the cash — they will have to give up something in exchange. Does the team want to pay for all the heat and lights and upkeep of a new stadium? If the team gets all the revenues — even from non-Vikings events — shouldn’t it pay to run the place?
This leads to who controls one of the most coveted and reliable revenue sources to pay for a stadium: its potential naming rights.
Apparently, there’s been a debate among bill sponsors and the team about who should control those dastardly corporate names on publicly funded stadiums, the worst case being, of course, ill-fated Enron Field in Houston.
About a decade ago, this once rabble-rousing reporter wrote that we shouldn’t even have corporate names on our public facilities, that they should be named after local heroes or heroines, a la Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St. Paul or the formal name, Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.
That assertion came when I threw in the towel about the hyper-corporate nature of stadiums and pro sports. If a company like Target or TCF Bank or Xcel Energy wants to link itself with pro sports and is willing to pay up to $10 million a year so its signs dominate a building and it can be joined at the hip with the tenant teams, well, then, let’s take the money and name.
But here’s the question: Why should the team get all the money from naming rights?
The politics of at least asking that question are attractive: The stadium’s going to be paid for mostly by the public, so we should get some of that reliable naming rights cash, right? We’re “partners,” aren’t we?
This sharing is not the general national model. In most cases — as with the Twins and Target Field — the team gets the naming rights revenues, which are guaranteed to be steady and a stream against which they can borrow other money.
But in some cases in the NFL — Jacksonville, Denver and, most recently, in a new stadium plan for the San Francisco 49ers — the public is sharing some cash from the naming rights. The tenant/team continues to work with the naming-rights buyer on marketing matters and captures that dough.
The other naming-rights news recently was the reported $600 million or $700 million naming deal that stadium management and entertainment conglomerate AEG scored with Farmers Insurance to help build a new NFL stadium in Los Angeles and lure a team.
No money has changed hands there. No stadium has been built. No team has been acquired. Indeed, such a naming rights deal implies that AEG wants to own an L.A. team, not simply have someone like Zygi Wilf move his team to Los Angeles.
A stadium in Minnesota cannot expect that sort of lucrative deal. A $7 million-a-year naming-rights arrangement here would be a good deal in this economy. New stadiums in New York and Dallas have gone without naming rights because owners sought too much.
Chances are, when all is said and done, public negotiators here will cede the naming rights to the team — with various caveats and approvals about which sorts of companies can be used (no tobacco, no alcohol, etc.) — but the public should get something in exchange.
How about this: if the team is going to control the naming rights, shouldn’t it be more transparent with its finances to its public partners? It’s been reported the Wilfs are carrying lots of debt on the team they bought six years ago, and that there have been cash calls to members of the ownership group to boost the team’s finances.
If that’s the case, we — as potential partners — need to know just how successful this team and its owners are. We don’t want to get stuck with another Target Center, rescuing a team and a building.
There’s another issue for the public and Legislature to think about. If the Wilfs invested $600 million in the team and must invest another $350 million in the stadium and then want to sell the team, who will buy this team in Minnesota for $950 million a few years down the road?
A football team in Minnesota for a billion dollars? Who in this town would buy that?
Fundamental questions to answer
It’s fitting that the Vikings debate comes at time when the fundamental questions at the Capitol are these: Who do we, as a state, as Minnesotans, want to be? How as a state do we want to be known? What is our “brand,” and what can we do to retain it?
For decades, the brand has been strong schools, home to a great land-grant university and state and private colleges, to the best that arts can offer, land of solid corporate citizens, to a community open to, if struggling with, diversity, to a flourishing and respected gay and lesbian community, to the great outdoors and clean water … you name it.
The Vikings — those helmeted millionaire warriors who broadcast their weekly TV show to the rest of the world — they’re part of the brand, too, a small part, but a globally recognized brand.
What are they worth to keep? What is this piece of our state brand worth to keep? This latest piece of legislation, soon to land at the Capitol, is another vehicle for Minnesota’s political leaders and citizens to figure it out.
MinnPost’s Jay Weiner has covered sports facilities issues in the Twin Cities since 1993 and the demise of Met Center and public buyout of Target Center. He is the author of “Stadium Games: Fifty Years of Big League Greed and Bush League Boondoggles,” University of Minnesota Press, 2000.